My ‘lonely’ roundabout journey to 100 columns

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 20, 2022. Illustration by Emma Walsh.

I stared at the list of names thumbtacked to the English department bulletin board and felt my stomach churn. My name wasn’t on it. Intermediate Fiction Writing would be convening that spring semester without me.

The professor’s scant notations in the margins of the typed writing sample I’d submitted hardly made it to page two. Should I knock on his door to find out why? Possibly ask for advice?

No way. I was afraid he’d say what I was already hearing in my head. I walked back to my dorm room and cracked open a beer. And that was the end of my creative writing days at Brown University.

But a different kind of writing beckoned.

Senior year, I landed an internship as a copywriter at an ad agency. Which turned into a job. Which turned into a career.

After I was hired, my sister-in-law gave me a framed cartoon from the New Yorker that sits on a shelf by my desk to this day. A woman in a bar is looking skeptically at a hipster guy. “Copywriting is too ‘writing,’” he insists.

It is and it isn’t.

It is, because copywriters, like all writers, wrestle with words to express ideas, make meaning, and connect with readers.

And it isn’t, because copywriters sign their work with their client’s name. It’s ghostwriting, and I’m fine with that. I’ve discovered I like the cloak of anonymity that writing for clients affords me.

For four decades, I’ve ghosted for banks and global corporations and even – wait for it – a casket wholesaler. Every day I exercise my writing muscles in service of my clients, like a basketball player practicing free throws in service of his or her team. A Macintosh computer is my gym.

Ten years ago, my friend Elizabeth asked if I’d like to contribute a piece to her local online news platform. I could write whatever I wanted, she said. I heard myself say “No, thanks” reflexively, perhaps summoning the ghost of my writing-class rejection at Brown.

And then my next-door neighbor died. I wrote a remembrance, and Elizabeth published it – a eulogy that recalled Dick’s annual Christmas morning visits with our family: “With his presents, white beard, and easy laugh, he was our belated Santa.” 

My work in the Macintosh gym paid off; I found the words to express my heartfelt feelings for my friend.

A dozen or so pieces followed. One recounted the kindness of my second-grade teacher; another described a fallen backyard fence and my children leaving home.

The more columns I wrote, the more comfortable I got with my byline. It was Dick’s last gift to me.

A lovely family moved into Dick’s old house. They may have been sent by angels because Harold, the dad, was a former copy editor at the New Yorker. After helping me fine-tune several of my pieces, he suggested I send one to Ed Achorn, then the Editorial Pages Editor of the Providence Journal.

Four months later I did – a Christmas Eve story about my grandfather’s baby clothes store on Federal Hill. It was my first column in the Journal. This one is my 100th

Writing is a solitary act.

The irony is, I write to not be alone. And when I hear from people, sharing their stories after reading mine, it’s a wondrous communion. 

To Elizabeth and Harold and Ed, for their encouragement and support, and to you, for reading, I offer what Alice Walker calls the best prayer anyone could say: “Thank you.”

16 Comments

Congratulations, John! I remember those early pieces, and have enjoyed your columns. And maybe that novel someday….

There is no anonymity in these columns, and that is what makes them great. Here’s to the next hundred.

Like you, for decades I have written over the names of countless illiterati. The dough is good, I’ve yet to betray my morals, and that work has never diminished my capacities as a writer of fiction. Plus, on all-too-rare occasions, the business of writing becomes a true pleasure — and an honor.
Over the last five years of his life, a multi-Oscar-winning lyricist and I became good friends. When he was approached by an internationally celebrated health care facility to write a direct mail fundraising letter — one of my areas of expertise — this great writer asked me to pen the piece over his signature.
If you live long enough …

A great writer’s gift is to find the words that the rest of us instantly recognize but could not have crafted ourselves. Hat’s off to you, John. Can’t wait for the next 100.

Congrats John! Heartfelt, humble, talented and accomplished… keep ‘em coming John. I so look forward to your writings!

Ernie

Right back at you! It was years ago that a colleague of mine introduced me to your writing when you wrote a very moving tribute to your in-laws. From that point forward, I was ‘hooked’ and have subscribed to your posts ever since. Thanks for entering our lives periodically with messages of nostalgia, humanity and poignant perspective. You excel at what you do!!!

John, congratulations ! What an accomplishment !..and as we are family, I want you to know that I read and reread each poignant piece, and I hold them in my heart. Keep writing, Carol

    Thanks, Carol. In the drawer of the desk where I sit writing every day, I have the note you wrote to me after that first piece about Papa’s store. Such encouraging words! I will keep them close always and “keep writing,” as you advised both then and now.

Donna Marie Horan March 21, 2022 at 5:49 am

I love this piece, John!
Keep sharing your ‘gift’ – and others out there keep sharing your gift of encouragement as it helps us to share the ‘lonely’ activities in which we are engaged.
‘THANK YOU’ for sharing!

Thank you John. I’ve been reading you from the beginning and always enjoy your stories and perspective. And of course stories about Vincent’s. Look forward to more. Be well. Leigh

So enjoy your well crafted words and their messages! Congratulations on 100! Keep ‘em coming!

Looking forward to the next hundred, John!

Hi John
Congratulations at reaching 100. May you continue to be inspired.
Joe P

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